Immigration debate begins in Senate as calls to end deportations grow

operation butterfly

WASHINGTON - In Spanish and English, the Senate pushed immigration legislation over early procedural hurdles as President Obama insisted the "moment is now" to give 11 million immigrants in the United States without documents a chance at citizenship. Despite Republicans' political need for the bill to pass, they threaten its passage by demanding unreasonable terms for legalization and border security.

"This bill has serious flaws," said their party leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, one of several who noted pointedly that the 60-vote majority they will demand for passage is hardly assured.

At its core, the bill sets out a 13-year journey to citizenship for the millions of immigrants who arrived in the United States without legal documents through the end of 2011 or who overstayed their visas. That journey would include paying fines and back taxes and other measures. The bill also requires a tighter border to prevent future "illegal" immigration.

The bill, known as the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013, S 744, was crafted by a bipartisan group of eight senators known as the "Gang of Eight." Other key provisions would create a new program for low-skilled workers to enter the country and expand the number of visas for high-skilled who are particularly in demand in technology firms. The bill also jettisons a decades-old system that favors family ties over education, job skills and other factors in prioritizing prospective legal immigrants.

On the first day of the full Senate debate, Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., delivered the opening speech explaining the bill in Spanish - reportedly the first time a speech was given in that language in Senate history. Kaine said it was appropriate to do so since the language "has been spoken in this country since Spanish missionaries founded St. Augustine, Florida in 1565. Spanish is also spoken by almost 40 million Americans who have a lot at stake in the outcome of this debate," he said in an English translation provided by his office.

Hours earlier, Obama appeared at the White House to prod Congress to send him a bill by autumn.

"Congress needs to act, and that moment is now, " Obama said, surrounded by immigration advocates, labor, business, and religious leaders, law enforcement officials, and others in the East Room of the White House.

"There's no reason Congress can't get this done by the end of the summer," the president said. "There's no good reason to play procedural games or engage in obstruction just to block the best chance we've had in years to address this problem in a way that's fair to middle class families, business owners and legal immigrants."

Harper Polling and Public Policy Polling announced a new poll from 29 states indicate voters are ready for Congress to pass immigration reform, including a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented living and working in communities across the country. In a press announcement, the polling firms said the new polls "indicate voters across the country, and even in some of the nation's most conservative states, are ready for a commonsense solution to the country's broken immigration system."

The AFL-CIO and other labor organizations mobilized their members from more than 20 states to lobby their senators as the debate got underway. The AFL-CIO committed to fighting for a citizenship path, protections for both American-born and immigrant workers and a "better immigration process that will raise wages for all workers. And we are fully committed to seeing this fight through."

Meanwhile, on the U.S.-Mexico border, a coalition of undocumented young people, United We Dream, held an emotional "partial family reunion" called Operation Butterfly with three "dreamers" and their mothers, who were deported. They met at the border fence that separates Nogales, Ariz. From Nogales, Mexico. More than 1,000 people are deported each day for minor infractions like an expired visa. Immigrant rights groups are demanding an immediate halt of noncriminal deportations, as many of these families would not be so cruelly separated if immigration reform becomes a reality. (Story continues after video.)

Reps. Luis Gutierrez and Jan Schakowsky of Illinois along with other congresspeople joined fathers facing deportation along with representatives of more than 400 immigrant rights organizations to deliver a letter asking President Obama to suspend deportations

"We call on the president to relieve the suffering of families by ceasing deportations as Congress debates reform," said Oscar Alfaro.

Alfaro, who had previously received a stay of deportation, was recently denied a renewal. He and his family have battled tirelessly in support of the president's vision for immigration reform yet may be deported in these next few weeks.

Teresa Albano contributed to this story using the following sources: AP, AFL-CIO, Immigrant Youth Justice League, People's World, United We Dream.

Photo: Dreamer Evelyn Rivera sees her mother for the first time in six years at an emotional "partial" reunion at the U.S.-Mexico border (UWD/FB).

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